Paris Street; rainy day AIC Chicago

The end of the century, 1870-1914, marked a series of political changes in France.  The Third Republic conformed to its motto, “Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité” which included: liberty of thought, politics and religion; liberty of work; equality of all before the law; primary teaching is declared secular, free and obligatory; and the colonial expansion in Afrique, Asia and Oceania.There was a tragic war against Prussia, La Commune, and the revolutionaries burned many historic monuments and structures in Paris, including the Palace of the Tuilleries and the Hotel de Ville.

In addition, the president of the Republic is elected for seven years and the Parliament is composed of two chambers:  The Senate and the Chamber of deputies.  France under Napoleon III is now the richest nation of Europe.  Napoleon III and his principal architect, Baron George Haussmann, created the boulevards and the architecture that Paris is famous for.  Not only did they create the visible aesthetics of Paris across the new boulevards, the public buildings and parks, they equally furnished the city with a much improved system of sewers and water supply. This transformation became a great influence on other great European cities as well as Rome, Stockholm, Barcelona and Madrid.  The United States followed suit in the reconstruction of Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Chicago after the model of Paris.

Over the next two decades, they constructed 85 miles of new roads, 70 schools, 50 churches, 2 large hospitals, 7 marches and famous public buildings as the Bibliothèque Nationale, l’Opera Garnier, and the reconstruction of the Louvre Museum and the Hotel Dieu.


In addition to Georges Haussmann, the principal architects of this period were Charles Garnier (*l’Opéra Garnier), Eugène Viollèt –le-Duc (Notre-Dame), Gustave Eiffel (*La Tour Eiffel), Jacques-Ignace Hittorf (la Gare du Nord), et Henri Labrouste (les Bibliothèques Sainte-Geneviève et Nationale).

This is also my favorite time of French literature.  Only France has a literary culture which elects the writer spokesman and invests literature with such powers.  The French writers are not considered as individuals like in the United States, but rather as part of a literary tradition.  For example, Voltaire was a philosopher; Hugo, a prophet, and Sartre an intellectual hero.  Although Voltaire and Hugo became active in politics and made positive changes, Sartre chose to adopt a philosophical approach.  He wrote against the bourgeois and the bourgeois readers.  The principal authors of the 19th century are : *Victor Hugo (see « Future Reading) ; *Honoré de Balzac (see « Future Reading ») ; Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) ; Emile Zola ; Guy de Maupassant (Bel Ami) ; Alphonse Daudet ; *Jules Verne (Voyage au centre de la terre) ; Dumas ; Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du mal) ; Paul Verlaine ; Arthur Rimbaud.


The principal sculptors were :  Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (La Danse), *Auguste Rodin (Le Penseur, Victor Hugo, Balzac), et Fréderic Auguste Bartholdi (*Statue of Liberty).

This period of French art history is also my favorite as it is the beginning of Impressionism.  I consider the visual texts of  Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir,  Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte and Georges Seurat as a model to examine some cultural transformations of this period.  The Impressionists represented in their works a Paris which had been reinvented and transfigured as a modern city and would be imitated by all of the capitals of Europe.  Manet, Renoir, Caillebotte and Seurat  painted numerous scenes of Paris representing the aesthetic changes of modernity, the mixing of social classes, and the images of the environs of the banlieues.

The Rooftops of Paris, Caillebotte

I have posted on the subject of these artists (see « Further Reading »), and have named the most celebrated artists of this period : Edouard Manet ( Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) ; *Claude Monet (Impession, soleil levant, Gare Saint-Lazare) ; Edgar Degas (de danseuses) ; *Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Bal au Moulin de la Galette, La balançoire) ; Toulouse Lautrec ; Paul Cézanne et Le Pointillisme :  *Georges Seurat (Un Dimanche après-midi) et Paul Signac.

Finally, the great French composers of the end of the XIXe century created many works which are still celebrated today.  Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, et Georges Bizet are three of the most celebrated composers.  Debussy had been influenced by the Impressionists and the Symbolists.  He found new harmonies for interpreting the impressions and the symbols of the poets of the time period : Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé and Villon.  Ravel is a master of orchestration who proves his works in Rhapsodie Espagnole, La Valse and Boléro.


In addition to all of the brilliant contributions of XIXe century France, it is important to include the scientific discoveries :  The radioactive properties of uranium by Pierre and Marie Curie and Henri Becquerel ;  the existence of the electron by Jean Perrin ;  and the important discoveries of the structure of the atom by Irène Curie and her husband Fréderic Joliot.


Pinkney, David.  Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris.  Princeton University Press. 1958

Further Readings

Victor Hugo:




  • Gare Saint-Lazare:
  • Judgment of Paris by Ross King:
  • Dawn of the Belle Epoque:



Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (